In La Folie Baudelaire Roberto Calasso describes the life, work, and world of symbolist poet Charles Baudelaire in terms of an image borrowed from nineteenth century French critic Charles Saint-Beuve: the “highly decorated, highly tormented but graceful” architectural extravagance known as a garden folly. Saint-Beuve used the image to disparage Baudelaire’s work. In Calasso’s hands it becomes high praise.
Part of an on-going exploration of the nature of modernity that began with the acclaimed Ruin of Kasch (1983), La Folie Baudelaire is not a biography of Baudelaire, though the reader will learn much about the poet’s life along the way. Instead Calasso uses Baudelaire and his writing as a lens through which to consider the literary and artistic world of nineteenth century Paris. Baudelaire leads Calasso and the reader to poets, painters, and prostitutes, to Gautier and Flaubert, to Ingres, Delacroix, and Degas, to romanticism, decadence, symbolism and, ultimately, modernity.
La Folie Baudelaire is fascinating, but it is not an easy read. Even the best-educated reader may want to keep a dictionary close at hand. Calasso’s style is both erudite and lyrical–as allusive as that of the poet who stands at the center of the work. Instead of a narrative history, the work is constructed as a series of loosely linked meditations that move back and forth through time–an innovative and eccentric format developed by Calasso in his earlier works. Despite its challenges, any reader interested in the period–or the poet–will find La Folie Baudelaire worth the effort.
This review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.